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Saudi Arabia and the West after Khashoggi: friendships are more powerful than politics

October 23, 2018

A few years ago a Saudi friend asked me to spend some time with a group of final year students at the school that he owned. The purpose was to help prepare them for the practical and emotional challenges of studying abroad. I and a colleague had developed a programme called Going West, which was designed to do just that.

I was happy to lend a hand. Most of the young Saudis I have met are smart, enthusiastic and eager to learn. There are boundaries, of course. No Westerner in his right mind, then or now, will challenge, or encourage his students to challenge, the supremacy of Islam or the legitimacy of the royal family.

I showed them how to create mind maps on flip charts to channel their ideas on various subjects, including themselves and their ambitions. Most of them wrote what you might expect of kids whose parents have a big say in their futures. They wanted to be doctors, engineers, civil servants or managers. One seventeen-year-old added what seemed like a plaintive note to his mind map: “I am not a terrorist”. His comment produced nervous laughter from his peers.

Bear in mind that this was 2011, a decade after 9/11, and before the coming of ISIS. Saudi Arabia itself was still suffering from sporadic terror attacks from groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The point I believe he was trying to make, as a kid who had travelled abroad a few times with his parents, was that he was aware of the damage that these attacks, along with the heavy involvement of fellow Saudis in 9/11, were causing to the image of Saudi Arabia in the outside world.

At the time I found his remark very poignant. Had I been concerned that around every corner was someone ready to mow me down with an AK-47 I would never have gone back to a country where I had spent nearly a decade living and working in the 1980s. Though I certainly encountered Westerners who were worried about just that. In particular, I had an American colleague, who, when I stopped for gas on a lonely petrol station halfway between Riyadh and Dammam, refused to get out of the car and stretch his legs fear that Al-Qaeda was waiting for him.

Now that the Saudi government has admitted that Jamal Khashoggi died at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, I’m pretty sure that there will be many ordinary Saudis who will be horrified that the misdeeds of a few will again taint their reputations. They, and especially the hundreds of thousands of students studying at foreign universities, will be worried that the world will see them as murderous thugs capable of doing whatever their fellow citizens did to Khashoggi.

Populists, who are in the ascendancy in the United States and on the rise in other western countries, routinely make sweeping statements about entire groups of people whose identity it suits their purpose to denigrate – migrants, Mexicans, Democrats, Muslims, Jews and so on. Will it now be the turn of the Saudis?

The last time they were in the spotlight was after 9/11, when the majority of the plane hijackers were revealed to be citizens of the Kingdom. Whether it was because of the Bush family’s strong relationship with the House of Saud or because populism had not yet reached its current pitch, anti-Saudi sentiment, beyond sporadic attacks on anyone who might look like a Saudi (in other words, people with brown skins) and an overreaction among bureaucrats and law enforcement agencies, was relatively mild in the US, and milder still in countries not directly affected by the attack on the Twin Towers.

The international reaction to Khashoggi’s death might be subtler, yet deeper and longer-lasting. The manner of his passing, in the perception of those who have previously turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s draconian justice system – may serve to draw fresh attention to the mutilations, the beheadings and the floggings at the extreme end of that system.

So will the thousands of young Saudis studying in the West find themselves less welcome and less accepted with an open heart by their host nations because of the actions of their government? I hope not, because apart from the knowledge and skills they bring back to their country their exposure to different values systems, whether consciously or unconsciously absorbed, will go a long way towards broadening the minds of their fellow citizens.

That’s not to say that they should aspire slavishly to emulate the West. God knows, Donald Trump and his fellow populists are hardly ideal role models for the young of any country. But the ability to think critically, which is at the heart of western tertiary education systems, will be their most valuable import.

Saudi Arabia’s people are not responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s death. We should not dehumanise them with broad brush prejudice. The Saudis I have met and befriended over the past thirty years are among the most respectful, kind and hospitable people I know. They are also as diverse as the people of America and Britain. If we treat them with kindness and respect despite the inhumane acts that have been carried out in their name, they will, if given the opportunity, repay our friendship and our belief in their better nature many times over.

The last thing I want to hear in the coming years is of Saudi teenagers feeling that they have to tell a teacher from another country that “I am not a butcher”.

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